Burkina Faso technique at City Lit

For the past few weeks my creative mojo has been curled up in a little ball somewhere under the duvet and refused to come out. It started with a relative’s sombre funeral (nothing to do with covid-19) and continued through the agonisingly drawn-out US elections (when all I wanted to do was sit in a corner and knit while watching CNN). Now I just seem to be in a state of general lethargy.

The first lockdown in March/April was quite a fruitful creative period for me. With exhibitions and shows cancelled and no deadlines to meet, I was able to rediscover the joy of creative play and experimentation. This time round it’s a bit different – the thought of a long dark winter with no or few opportunities to meet up with friends, visit exhibitions and restaurants, or travel anywhere is dispiriting, to say the least.

A little light in the gloom was a course in Burkina Faso plaiting with John Page, run over four consecutive Saturdays at City Lit – one of the few remaining courses that was held face to face rather than online. Because it counts as education it was allowed to continue, albeit with perspex screens, copious hand sanitation points and mask wearing.

Henrietta and Jo, two of my cohort from the two-year City Lit basketry course, also attended, so it was good to see them and catch up in person.

Traditionally in basketry you have upright stakes, around which you wind the weavers. But with Burkina Faso plaiting there is no distinction – the stakes and weavers are constantly changing places. And if you use rigid materials, such as cane or willow, it tends to produce a rather lovely spiral. With softer materials, which are easier to manipulate, you can also weave more regular rows.

We started with rattan (cane) and soft materials like sisal, to learn the basic technique. Because cane is a regular thickness along its whole length, it tends to form a cylinder, but the ends can be tied off to produce a vessel that could be used as a bird feeder or garlic basket.

burkina faso cane piece

Here are some samples made by the group in varied materials, including cane, sisal and telephone wire.

burkina faso group samples

We then moved on to using willow. Because willow rods taper, they naturally form a cone shape. We practised making flat tops and spiral tops.

burkina faso willow vessels

We also tried making flat-bottomed vessels. Quite a lot of strength is needed here to pull the willow into place!

burkina faso flat bottomed willow

Finally, we worked with rush – first time with this material for us all. It’s strangely spongy but is much easier to manipulate than willow.

I started by making a small rush pouch.

burkina faso rush pouch

Then in the final week most of us made rush bags.

burkina faso rush bag

Learning a new technique or working with new materials is always stimulating, and I could feel my creative mojo starting to stir at last!

Here’s a flat spiral I made using paper yarn.

burkina faso paper spiral

And I started making a pouch from telephone wire.

burkina faso phone wire pouch

But then it wanted to turn into another spiral – so I let it!

burkina faso phone wire spiral

Then I had another block – what to do with the ends? The consensus on Instagram was to leave them loose and wild, but they were rather long, and the piece just didn’t feel finished to me. Then someone suggested bending the spiral outwards to create a double-walled vessel. This was slightly tricky, as it meant I would have to plait in reverse. I couldn’t work out how to do that, so I had to plait from the inside looking through the other side of the basket.

burkina faso phone wire spiralburkina faso phone wire spiral

But I was pleased how the piece finally resolved itself in a sort of jellyfish form. And I left the ends free, so managed to have my cake and eat it! 😉

Frame baskets with Stella Harding

I’ve always liked the organic nature of frame baskets. These are baskets made by connecting two hoops at right angles, and then gradually inserting ribs around which the weavers are woven to form the basket. The skill lies in making the hoops and adding the ribs to create the shape.

Unlike conventional stake and strand baskets, which are woven in the round, frame baskets are woven starting at the sides and finishing in the middle. Most were traditionally made not by professional basketmakers but by ordinary people, often using hedgerow materials or whatever else was to hand, for gathering fruit or foraging.

For our classes at Morley College with Stella, we used thick cane to make the hoops and ribs, and finer cane (some dyed) for weaving.

We started by practising the “god’s eye” binding, which is used to join the two hoops together.

god's eyes practice

This technique is easier with something flat, like chair cane, but I also had a go with centre cand and some homemade cordage.

Once we’d mastered the technique, we used it to join our two hoops together.

joining hoops with god's eye

Then we inserted a couple of ribs and started weaving with fine cane. After a few more rows of weaving, we inserted more ribs. Getting the length of the ribs correct, and judging whether you have the right number of ribs, has to be done by eye and is important, as it determines the final shape.

frame basket in progress

As you can see, in addition to weaving with cane, I used some of my homemade cordage and also some periwinkle stems that I’d collected and dried from my garden. This gave a more varied texture.

frame basket in progress

Weaving alternates from one end to the other, so that both sides eventually meet in the centre.

frame basket in progress

Joining is usually done on the outside so that the inside of the basket remains neat.

It can get very fiddly finishing the last weaving in the centre, as the gap gets increasingly smaller. However, because I used cordage, which is softer and easier to manipulate than cane, this was less of a problem.

frame basketframe basket

And here’s the finished collection of baskets by the class. Plus a quick platter I managed to whip up to practise working with flat chair cane. 🙂

frame baskets morley college

Tiny open weave twined baskets

As a break from precise geometric work, I was aching to have a go at something a little less rigid. Then I saw that Christi York, whom I follow on Instagram, had produced some videos on making open weave baskets.

Her baskets were made from peeled, split ivy (she’s also produced videos showing how to do this). However, I had a go at this but totally failed to split the ivy evenly. (I’ve had similar problems with trying to split willow.)

So I thought I would use some cane leftover from making my cane platter. I’m afraid I didn’t take any photos as I went along not enough hands! 😉  Here’s the result – it’s about 10cm (4 inches) high.

cane garlic basket cane garlic basket

I decided to add a handle on one side so it could be hung up – maybe for keys or a couple of bulbs of garlic.

cane garlic basket

As Christi says in the videos, cane is very regular, which makes it easy to use. So I decided to make another one with more irregular material – cordyalis cordyline leaves.

cordyalis leaves

I have a cordyalis cordyline plant in the back garden – I’m not sure where it came from, as it wasn’t there when we moved in and I’m pretty sure I didn’t plant it! But its leaves are very strong for basketry. They fall off naturally, but sometimes I remove them from the trunk when they have gone brown. I soak them for about an hour in warm water and then wrap them in a towel to mellow overnight.

Here’s the cordyalis cordyline version.

cordyalis garlic basket cordyalis garlic basket

This is even smaller than the cane basket – about 7cm (3 inches) high and 6cm (2.5 inches) across. I used the same number of stakes (9) for each.

Here you can see them together.

two garlic baskets

It was very relaxing to make something more freeform – it was also relatively quick!

Edited to say: Got the name of the plant wrong – should be cordyline, not cordyalis. Goodness knows where that even came from!

Cane platters

The first half of this term’s basketry course at City Lit focused on working with cane, with Polly Pollock. Many of the stake and strand techniques that we used are similar to those we learnt when working with willow last term, but subtly different.

After learning how cane is grown and harvested, we started with dyeing, using Rit dyes. Initially we were very careful to use different bowls for every colour, but by the end we were dipping the cane with abandon into many colours (or was that just me?). 😉

dyeing cane

These dyed samples were only for experimenting with, so for once I moved away from my normal palette into shades of raspberry and pistachio.

dyed cane

To learn the basic techniques, we used discs of MDF pre-drilled with holes rather than making a base, which was a lot quicker!

cane basketry

We used these to practise stepping up, packing and waling.

cane basketry

Polly likes to set a project for each module, and the theme of this one was to make a cane platter inspired by aerial photography. I played around with a few ideas, but was most attracted by the patterns formed by mountain ridges.

cane platter sketchbookcane platter sketchbook

This didn’t involve packing and waling, but relied on pairing using weavers of different colours. Because the platter was worked from the centre, we would have to add more “spokes” as it grew, and this design would also make a virtue of this necessity, as the spokes are an integral part of the pattern. I thought I also might be able to create texture by varying the tension or using weavers of different thicknesses so that the spokes sat higher than the background.

To test out the idea I worked a couple of samples  – which was very useful.

cane sample

Having ascertained that the technique was feasible, it was on to the real thing. For this I reverted to my normal colour preference!

dyed cane

Unfortunately, I made a couple of elementary mistakes in the planning.

First off, I completely forgot to leave half the weaving cane undyed. So I had to use another batch of undyed cane, which was a slightly different shade (you can see this in the photo below).

cane platter wip

Then I added too many spokes too soon, forgetting that they had to be a minimum distance apart of 2cm at the border. So I had to undo a large chunk of weaving to remove spokes I had added, to insert them at a slower rate.

Still, the platter made progress.

cane platter wip

We finished off with a few rows of waling to hold everything in place before adding the border. Here I sneaked in a bit of the pistachio cane I’d dyed for the samples.

cane platter

It was a big learning curve but I’m pleased with the final result.

I think it could be interesting to do a monochrome version using undyed cane (all the same colour!) and just dark blue – what do you think?